Record Turnout of Non-College Whites Continues to Upend Political Forecasts

Market Research Foundation Memo on Voter Turnout  

In 2016 the unprecedented turnout of non-college whites played a crucial role in former President Trump’s election. Since then, left-leaning research organizations have dedicated substantial effort to reinforcing the narrative that non-college whites are a shrinking demographic and will soon be outnumbered, paving the way for an unchecked left-wing agenda.

While it is true that non-college whites have declined modestly as a share of eligible voters due to demographic factors, what is missing from the conversation is the white non-college increase in turnout. This is particularly relevant in rust belt states, where non-college whites turned out substantially higher in 2020 than they did in 2016. New analysis from Market Research Foundation (MRF) shows while whites without a college degree have declined as a share of eligible voters, their turnout rates are rising.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin have all seen modest declines in the share of white non college voters due to demographic shifts including increasing education among whites and increasing numbers of minorities. However, non-college whites still make up over half of eligible voters in these states.

In 2016, 60% of the Ohio population, which skews older and whiter than the U.S. overall, were non-college whites according to the Pew Research Center. Non-college whites made up 43% of all votes cast in the General Election in 2016. Four years later, white non-college voters had declined to 55% of the eligible voter population. However, 53% of all votes cast in Ohio in 2020 belonged to white non-college voters. In other words, as they declined as a share of the electorate, white non-college Americans substantially increased their voter turnout rates.

The Ohio white non-college turnout rate increased by approximately 20 points from 51% in 2016 to 71% in 2020 according to Market Research Foundation (MRF) analysis. To create the Ohio estimates, MRF analyzed exit polls from 2016 and 2020 as a benchmark for the share of the vote each year identified as white non-college. We then accessed the Ohio Secretary of State data for total number of registered Ohio voters and total votes cast in both election years. Next, we combined these data with population estimates from the U.S. Census to determine the share of Ohio voters in 2016 and in 2020 who were identified as whites without a college degree.

Nationwide the U.S. Census shows the share of white non college Americans has declined as a share of eligible voters from 45% in 2016 to 41% in 2020. However, as Market Research Foundation noted in our report White Non-College Vote Continues to Rise and Play Pivotal Role in Elections the white non-college turnout rate in 2020 was the highest observed in at least 20 years. Nationwide the white non-college vote rose six points from 58% in 2016 to 64% in 2020 according to new analysis from Brookings.

The Ohio correlation between increasing voter turnout among non-college whites as their share of the electorate declines appears to be part of a larger demographic shift, particularly in the rust belt.

Pennsylvania follows a similar trajectory as Ohio. While the share of white-non college voters in Pennsylvania declined 5 points between 2016 and 2020, non-college whites still make up 52% of the voting eligible population. The white non-college turnout rate in Pennsylvania rose 9 points from 57% in 2016 to 65% in 2020.

Michigan and Wisconsin experienced similar drops in the share of white non-college voters, but both experienced a rise in the share of non-college whites turning out to vote. In Michigan, non-college whites still make up 53% of the eligible voter population, and their turnout rate rose 5 points from 59% in 2016 to 63% in 2020. In Wisconsin, non-college whites still make up 59% of the eligible voter population, and their turnout rate climbed 5 points from 68% in 2016 to 73% in 2020.

While non-college whites are now voting at a higher turnout rate and therefore overcoming their reduction in overall size, it is important to note that they are even less “Republican” than they were. Recent Gallup polling shows a recent decline in Republican identity from 2020 to 2021. Last year, Democrats and Democrat leaners surpassed Republicans and Republican leaners by a margin of 49% to 44%. In 2021 while the Democrat and Democrat leaner percentage held steady at 49%, the Republican plus leaner percentage dropped four points to 40%.

The decline in affinity for the Republican label does not however, correspond with a decline in conservative views. In fact, the same Gallup poll notes that conservative and moderate identifies in the rust belt continue to eclipse liberal identities. Gallup shows a 15-point advantage for conservatives overall liberals in Ohio, with 37% of Ohio voters identifying as conservative to just 22% who identify as liberal and 35% who identify as moderate. Conservatives in Pennsylvania hold a ten-point advantage over liberals, with 34% of Pennsylvanians identifying as conservative, 24% as liberal and 36% as moderate. In Wisconsin, 35% of voters identify as conservative while 24% identify as liberal and 37% identify as moderate, and in Michigan 33% identify as conservatives, 23% identify as liberals and 38% identify as moderate.

Non-college whites continue to play a crucial role in elections, and this analysis demonstrates as demographic pressures reduce their share of the voter population, they become increasingly engaged politically. While non-college whites have leaned heavily Republican in the past two general elections, there has been a decline in Republican identity since 2020. However, this decline in GOP identity has not corresponded with a decline in overall conservative identity. Conservative identity in the rust belt surpasses liberal identity. Whites without a college degree still represent millions of untapped voters, and with the right approach they can be brought into the voter population.